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Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2007

Tokyo positive but still cautious about new six-party deal


Staff writer

Senior government officials on Tuesday praised the landmark agreement reached in the six-party talks on the denuclearization of North Korea but were also cautious, saying Japan still has a long and difficult road ahead to keep the nation secure and resolve the abduction issue.

Tokyo has chosen to walk a tightrope, trying to balance two conflicting aims -- backing the six-party talks accord, yet refusing to give the North any economic assistance agreed to in the deal.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe repeated Japan will not give any aid to the North until major progress is made on the issue of Japanese kidnapped by Pyongyang in the 1970s and 1980s.

Last year, the U.S. and Japan, which take the toughest line against the North, said they should only dole out "'punishment" to Pyongyang and never give what they called "compensation" for the North's test-firing of ballistic missiles in July and detonation of a nuclear device in October.

However, the U.S., China, South Korea and Russia have agreed to give economic assistance of 50,000 tons of heavy oil for shutting down the Yongbyon reactor and another 950,000 tons if the North disables that reactor and moves toward total denuclearization.

A senior Foreign Ministry official said that the United States has become "more flexible" under the Bush administration since the Republican Party lost control of Congress in the midterm elections in November.

"It's probably because of Iraq issues. (The U.S.) can't concentrate on the North Korean issue," the official said.

For Abe, who owes much of his public popularity to his tough stance on the abduction issue, however, any compromise in his line on North Korea could be a fatal blow to his government. At the same time, refusing outright to participate in the exchange of aid for the nuclear shutdown could isolate Japan from the other six-party members.

To avoid this, Foreign Minister Taro Aso has been floating the idea that Japan not give any financial assistance to the North, but cooperate with the fuel aid by dispatching researchers to examine the fuel demands of the reclusive state.

"We have won the understanding of (other six-party) countries on our position. (Our insistence of first dealing with the abduction issue) has not damaged our national interests at all," Abe told the House of Representatives in a Budget Committee session on Tuesday.

Even though Japan said during the latest round of talks that it would not give economic assistance to the North, the North made concessions in response to the U.S. concessions.

Keio University professor Masao Okonogi pointed out that the U.S. and the North Korea both made concessions on key points -- the North has pledged to eventually "disable" its nuclear reactor, while the U.S. has pledged to start the process of "removing the designation (of North Korea) as a state sponsor of terrorism."

This round of the six-party talks "made big achievements. It was a rather difficult job, but we have remained well united up to now," Aso told reporters Tuesday evening after the agreement was formally announced to the public.

Time will tell if Pyongyang is serious about the deal and Tokyo is cautious.

Earlier in the day, Aso urged reporters to be cautious in predicting what the results of this round will be, saying the deal is only the initial stage in getting the North to denuclearize.

"This is still the first step, and we have to promote (the eventual goal) concretely from now own," Aso said, mentioning the draft proposals that later became the final written agreements of the six-party talk.

"We are not sure if we can carry (the agreements) out even if we sign them."

No aid from Japan

Kyodo News The United States, China, South Korea and Russia agreed Tuesday in a document to allow Japan not to take part in aid to North Korea pledged at the six-party talks, according to diplomatic sources.

They agreed to the exemption because of Tokyo's desire to first resolve the abductions issue. The document says the group hopes the issue will be resolved quickly and Japan then will participate in the aid, the sources said.

China included similar wording on Japan in a draft accord it circulated at the six-party talks in Beijing, but the exemption was not included in the official document released Tuesday after an objection was raised, they said.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also told the Diet that through diplomatic channels, Japan has obtained consent to a deal under which Tokyo will not give energy aid to the North.

Abe said Japan will not provide aid to North Korea because there has been no progress in the abductions.

The six nations, discussing the North Korean nuclear weapons program, have agreed to a deal that Pyongyang will receive aid equivalent to 1 million tons of fuel oil once it completes the initial phase of denuclearization.



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